The Real Debate That Islamism Should Spark

Is Islamism a dangerous trend of the future in Muslim-majority societies, or a natural passing phase only?

Every few years, it seems the world of Middle East and global policy analysis passes through a phase when a basic question rears its head in the media and in conversations across the world: Is Islamism a dangerous trend of the future in Muslim-majority societies, or a natural passing phase only? I am struck by how often in conversation with friends and colleagues around the world the discussion so often reverts to this issue—while in daily discussions with Arabs and Muslims across the Middle East, the issue is less frequently raised.

I am not sure if that means that, a) the West is rightly obsessed with this genuine threat of long-term Islamist militancy, b) the West has bought the line put out by assorted Arab autocrats who are directly threatened by Islamist uprisings or opposition forces, c) Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East who live with these issues every day recognize that Islamism and its manifestations like the Muslim Brotherhood or ISIS are primarily surface manifestations and symptoms of deeper issues that are not really about religion—but about politics, human nature, and the abuse of power that degrades hundreds of millions of citizens who have nowhere else to turn other than their religion.

I ask this question because it is important that every time this discussion revives, we make sure to debate the right issues, rather than being sidetracked by smoke screens and diversionary propaganda that is now widely disseminated through global public relations campaigns funded by a few wealthy Arab countries that are genuinely worried about the persistence of Islamist movements all around the region.

Do countries like Egypt and some wealthy oil-producers have good cause to fear the durability and even some expansion of Islamist groups regionally and even globally? I would say the answer is both yes and no. Yes, they should fear these signs of mass discontent by Islamists and secular others, because an agitated citizenry that translates discontent into political action can generate populist momentum that overthrows governments (Tunisia, Egypt) or sends some countries whose governments fight back into endless civil wars (Libya, Syria, Yemen). No, they should not fear the persistence of Islamist politics if they correctly read this is a symptom of underlying mass discomfort among politically neutered and voiceless citizens who have been mistreated by their own societies, if these governments are prepared to address the underlying problems and fix them peacefully.

The condition and future of political-social-militant movements that wrap themselves in the banner of Islam and appeal to Muslims in a variety of ways usually sees people talking about “political Islam.” This broad term can refer to a thousand different movements in a hundred different countries—from local volunteer bakeries that provide food for the needy, to globe-skirting political mobilization movements that seek to unite all members of the Muslim community (umma) into a single Islamic nation, ideally under a revived caliphate. I find it more useful to speak of “Islamist” movements, and add an appropriate adjective to identify them as pacifist, activist but non-violent, political action-oriented, community social services-oriented, militant, terrorist, or some other words that differentiate the movements we are talking about.

We all know what we are talking about. A majority of these movements that frighten many people include, a) the traditional Muslim Brotherhood (that has existed longer than most Arab countries have been sovereign states) and its assorted national recent offshoots, b) killer terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS that attack globally, c) country-based armed resistance movements that fight to free their lands from Israeli occupation (like Hamas and Hezbollah), and, d) hundreds of smaller armed, jihadi, local or national movements in between that have now taken root in wild lands like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, and Libya.

My main criticism of this common debate is that the Islamist nature of the political groups involved too often frightens people so quickly that they neglect to make a more thorough analysis of why these movements suddenly came into being or expanded quickly across our region or in foreign countries. The exaggerated emphasis on religion and Islam blocks the more important discussion of the underlying drivers of discontent and degradation in people’s lives that caused them to turn to their religion as a means to do what has mostly been impossible for them to do in other political, social, civic, or media dimensions of their lives — which is to express their grievances, engage in political decision-making as full citizens should, hold power accountable, and seek to implement national policies that ensure, rather than restrict, the political, social, and economic rights of all citizens.

If governments and their small power elites do not allow citizens to complain about or redress the underlying conditions that disenfranchise and marginalize millions of people in their own societies, they should not be surprised that exacerbated men and women turn in desperation—or in the logical flow of human experience—to their deities to save them.

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. On Twitter: @ramikhouri

Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

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